Get in on the action: Pickleball is the fastest-growing sport in the US
Special to the Daily Sentinel
Born in Bainbridge, Washington, in 1965, pickleball was a family game designed by Lt. Joel Pritchard and his friends, Bill Bell and Barney McCallon, after a golf match.
Get in on the action: Pickleball is the fastest-growing sport in the US
On a sunny Tuesday afternoon, a mother holding the hand of her small child pauses in front of the pickleball court at Sherrillbrook Park, listening to the chatter and laughter as yellow tennis balls bounce around the court. The mother explains the game to her son as he giggles and scrunches his nose at the word “pickle.” An enthusiastic cheer erupts from players on the court, and the small child begins smiling and clapping from the sidelines. Then, as the mother urges her son to continue their walk, one woman calls out from the court: “Bring him in. We’ll put him right in the kitchen!”
The interaction is typical of the pickleball community, in which players tend to jump at the chance to get family, friends, or total strangers to join a game. That enthusiasm — complete with playful words like “the kitchen” (the non-volley zone on either side of the net) and “dinking” (soft, arcing shots) — seems to set the tone for why this sport has become the fastest-growing sport in the US, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.
Born in Bainbridge, Washington, in 1965, pickleball was a family game designed by Lt. Joel Pritchard and his friends, Bill Bell and Barney McCallon, after a golf match. The enthusiastic gentlemen reportedly arrived home, full of vigor from their triumphant 18 holes, to discover their family upset over an absent shuttlecock that prevented them from playing badminton. So the men scrambled to the course, lowered the badminton net, grabbed a few paddle balls and their dog, Pickle’s beloved wiffleball, and orchestrated a playful game that got everyone on the court.
Anyone who visited Pritchard Manor had to join the sport, creating a chain reaction as guests would bring the entertaining sport back to their communities.
David Meislin, founder of pickleball at the Jewish Community Center in Utica, caught wind of the sport 10 years ago after watching Tom Brokaw’s broadcast of the rising southern attraction. Brokaw’s detailed coverage enticed Mieslin to examine the area’s courts and leagues.
“There was nothing here,” Meislin stated. “I kept asking around, and no one had heard about this crazy sport. So I researched the game, examined the rules, and contacted the JCC to establish a court time inside their gym. I brought in a few of my friends to play, and they invited a few more. Once people played or came out to see what this funny-sounding sport was, they fell in love. Suddenly they wanted to play every day.”
Within the first year, the three-day time slot reserved for pickleball at JCC attracted over 150 active picklers.
“Pickleball is for anyone that enjoys playing ping-pong, racquetball, or badminton,” Meislin said. “It’s great for people who want to try something different. It has unique rules that are very easy to learn, which makes it quick for someone to jump in and start playing.”
The recreational game combines the elements of paddle ball, tennis, and badminton but without the high intensity and large playing areas. Played by individuals or duos, pickleball involves volleying a lightweight ball back and forth over a net on a smaller version of a tennis court. The objective is to score 11 points before the other team does. Picklers serve the ball at a diagonal angle over the net and keep it outside a seven-foot no-volley zone, known as the kitchen, to score points. Strategy is critical in pickleball, and players must outwit their opponents to succeed.
“Pickleball is a game of finesse. You’re not using your strength and power to smash the ball. Instead, you’re using control and strategy to beat your opponent. But that doesn’t mean you won’t work hard. As an active runner, I’ve left the court dripping in sweat some nights,” Meislin laughed.
Regarding newcomers, Meislin is quick to discuss JCC’s beginner court slots, which allow them to learn about the game, where to stand, and how to hold the paddle.
“Every new player is a potential pickler, so we encourage everyone to come and try it out. We added additional time slots for newcomers to help them acclimate and feel more comfortable. We have some phenomenal players who play in tournaments and others who are middle-of-the-road and beginners, but we all mix. We have a rotation system that brings people in and out, forcing weaker players to play against stronger players, which helps them learn the art of the game while the stronger players learn the aspect of teaching.”
However, while Meislin warns beginners that time on the court can be addicting, he’s also quick to highlight the connection that revolves outside of the court.
Pickleball’s popularity is rising, expanding beyond just casual pick-up games. The sport has become so popular that it’s been incorporated into college and high school sports programs, found its way onto cruise ships, and opened a themed restaurant in its honor. Across the country, communities are investing in new pickleball courts to meet the demand for the sport, particularly among younger generations. For instance, the town of New Hartford installed six new pickleball courts at their Sherrillbrook town park to accommodate the growing demand for the sport.
“The Jewish Community Center played a crucial role in introducing pickleball to our area and generating excitement for the sport. However, after quite a few years, people began seeking a place to play outside during the summer. At that time, we had many tennis courts in the area but no pickleball courts. Our tennis courts needed to be in better shape. They weren’t safe to play on because of cracking, so I approached the town seeking to rebuild and supplement the courts for pickleball,” Wendy Seifried from the Town of New Hartford stated. “It’s been a great success, and the response from the community has been amazing. Pickleball is a great social game that encourages everyone to come onto the court and play. However, while it’s a great way to get out, learn something new, have fun, and be active, it comes with a fair warning, as I’ve never met a player who’s pickled just once.”
New Hartford’s pickleball courts were established in 2019, opening the summer of COVID. Yet, while the town wondered about the initial breakthrough and the setbacks it may have caused, the turnaround in popularity put all of their concerns to rest. Four years after its installation, the courts remain filled with players hoping to lure additional players into a new game. However, the younger players that are turning out might be the most impressive.
“It’s great to see younger generations taking an interest in the sport. Most afternoons, you can spot a court combined with older and younger players. It shows the game’s flexibility and inclusivity,” Seifried stated.
For those new to pickleball, Seifried advises taking a beginner slot at JCC or watching an instructional video before trying the game to prevent them from becoming discouraged or dismayed by professional players who might be on the court. She believes that the more players play, the easier it becomes, and the quicker they can join in on the social, energetic spirit of the game.
Pickleball’s accessibility, social atmosphere, and distinctive style of play have captured the hearts of players everywhere, making it one of the fastest-growing sports in the nation. With something for everyone, whether you’re an experienced athlete or a newcomer, pickleball offers a unique challenge that can enhance your stamina and coordination while building connections and fostering camaraderie with other players. Think you’ve got what it takes? Check out the pickleball courts in your area, pick up a paddle, and join the Pickleball Revolution to experience the excitement.
Where to play:
Borza’s Recreation Center, 45 Seymour Lane, Westmoreland
Rock Park/Ridgewood Heights, 2001 Roser Terr., Rome
Copper City Community Connection, 305 E. Locust St., Rome
Jewish Community Center, 2310 Oneida St., Utica
Marcy Town Park, 9455 Toby Road, Marcy
Oneida Family YMCA, 701 Seneca Street in Oneida
Sherrill Brook Town Park, 4191 NY State Rte.12 in New Hartford
Thrive Athletic Center, 8387 Seneca Turnpike, New Hartford
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